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Each spring, hundreds of pilgrims from across the country and around the world, descend upon the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to experience and celebrate the remarkable views in what is known as the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

In 1951, the year of the first annual pilgrimage, visitors atop Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, could have seen rich green hillsides and a view that stretched for 100 miles.

Today’s pilgrims can see wooden skeletons jutting out of a landscape that can only be viewed up to about 20 miles.

The Great Smoky Mountains are changing, and not for the better.

That’s because they are under attack by a myriad of forces chipping away at the national treasure’s ethereal beauty.

“The Smokies are one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and are being negatively impacted by invasive, exotic plants and animals, global warming, pollution and acid rain, just to name a few,” explained Gene Wofford, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the pilgrimage’s leaders.

Hemlock trees are being destroyed by the hemlock woolly adelgids. Beech trees are being lost to beech bark disease. Dogwood anthracnose is decimating the dogwoods. Pine bark beetles are eating away the mountain pine. And the balsam woolly adelgid is slowly, but surely, killing Fraser firs. More than destroying the view, these predators are rendering birds, insects and other animals homeless.

Air pollution damages trees’ fighting chance for survival by weakening them and making them vulnerable to attack. It is also to blame for limiting the scenic views of the mountains.

Scientists trace the air pollution to small particles produced mostly by the burning of coal. Because the particles reflect and scatter light, visitors see a whitish haze rather than views of distant mountains. The National Park Service is involved in a number of projects aimed at improving air quality. Through these efforts, the park service has been able to identify types and sources of air pollution impacting the Smokies and use this information to help inform legislators and promote initiatives to improve air quality.

However, increasing demand for electricity in the East and Midwest continues to threaten air quality. Coal-burning power plants are major polluters, and a rise in electricity demand has sparked proposals for more of these plants. Park scientists say the primary way to improve the views of the Smokies is for people to conserve energy.

And organizers of the pilgrimage hope that, along with fond memories and beautiful pictures, participants take with them the lesson that their daily decisions, such as turning on the lights or leaving the car running, directly affect the health of the Smokies.

“People who come to the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage see the impacts and learn about the causes,” said Ed Clebsch, a professor in UT Knoxville’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the pilgrimage’s leaders. “When they go home, will what they saw here today affect what they do tomorrow? I don’t know but I sure hope so.”

Since the pilgrimage’s inception, UT has been instrumental in organizing the event which is a five-day celebration with 115 leaders and more than 150 programs, featuring natural history walks, motorcades, photographic tours, art classes and indoor seminars. In fact, all the leaders have ties to UT.

In addition to educating the public about the threats to the Smokies, the university is also helping battle one of its predators, the hemlock woolly beetle. Technicians at UT’s Agricultural Campus are incubating tiny beetles that live to eat the hemlock woolly beetle. Park scientists are hopeful this tactic can save the park’s hemlock trees.

Registration for this year’s pilgrimage, which will be April 21 through 25, is now open.

Along with outdoor programs and tours, the W.L. Mills Conference Center — the event’s registration site in Gatlinburg– will feature art exhibitions, merchants and related activities. Tickets are $75 per person for two or more days. Single-day tickets are available for $40. Student tickets are $10 and must be verified with a student ID.

The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a joint venture of the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, the City of Gatlinburg Department of Tourism, the Friends of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Gatlinburg Garden Club, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.

For more information, call (865) 436-7318, Ext. 222, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or visit Lodging information is also available on the site.

Note: Wildflowers pictures courtesy of John B. Breinig.